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Image of a US Army AH-64E Apache attack helicopter. © 2020 US Army/Specialist Cody Rich

(Washington, DC) – The US Congress should block or delay sales of almost $2 billion in attack helicopters and munitions to the Philippines until the government adopts major reforms to end military abuses and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said today. The Trump administration notified Congress in late April 2020 of two possible Foreign Military Sales by the US military to the Philippines, one for $1.5 billion including six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, a second for $450 million including six AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters, both with accompanying guided missiles, rockets, and light cannon ammunition, as well as ongoing service contracts for training, parts, and maintenance.

The Philippines military has a long track record of violations of human rights and the laws of war during counter-insurgency operations against the communist New People’s Army and Moro armed groups, including disregard of civilian life, hundreds of extrajudicial executions, mistreatment of displaced people, and indiscriminate attacks. The military also has a poor record of holding those responsible for human rights abuses accountable.

“Approving contracts for attack helicopters would be sending a terrible message to the Philippine government that long-running military abuses without accountability have no consequences on the US-Philippines relationship,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “Congress should be impressing upon the Philippine government that real reforms are needed to end military abuses before deals like this can be approved.” 

The Philippine military has a deeply rooted culture of impunity, Human Rights Watch said. Data from the Philippines Department of National Defense indicate that only one soldier has been convicted of an extrajudicial killing since 2001.

For much of the past decade, the US Congress has imposed conditions or restrictions on military assistance to the Philippines, communicating that cuts could only be restored if the Philippine government systematically improved its record, which the government never did. The arrest in August 2014 of Jovito Palparan, a retired Army major general implicated in numerous cases of abductions, torture, and killing, and his conviction in 2018, was a rare challenge to the impunity for military personnel, which multiple Philippine presidential administrations have failed to adequately address. There have been no other such convictions.

Unlawful attacks against leftists that the military accuse of being members of or sympathizers with the New People’s Army have continued, particularly in the central Philippine island of Negros. The government has also ramped up its dangerous anti-communist rhetoric against these individuals and groups.

The US State Department has not received any assurances about where these weapons systems would be deployed or for what purpose, Human Rights Watch said.

Congress has various means to stop or delay the sales. Members of Congress can introduce a “resolution of disapproval” and seek to vote it into law, and individual members on certain committees can place a “hold” on the sales pending further review.

If the sales goes forward, the US government should put the Philippines on notice that ongoing and future servicing and supply of parts for the weapons systems will cease in the event the systems are used illegally. Under US law illegal use of weapons constitute a violation of their End Use Certificates, which impose various restrictions on their use after a sale.

The proposed sales come at a time of a deeply deteriorating human rights situation in the Philippines and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. After President Rodrigo Duterte began his “war on drugs” in mid-2016, the police have killed more than 5,600 people in anti-drug operations, according to official statistics. Thousands more have died in killings attributed to unidentified gunmen. The killings have orphaned thousands of children who suffer from the emotional, psychological, and economic impacts of the campaign. More than 100 children have been killed between 2016 and 2018.

“The US should not be selling advanced military systems to an abusive, unaccountable Philippine military under cover of a global pandemic,” Sifton said. “Congress needs to act now.”

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